Encephalitis is inflammation of the brain. This inflammation can cause symptoms such as confusion, a fever, a bad headache, and a stiff neck. Sometimes it leads to symptoms like seizures and personality changes. It can also cause long-term problems, such as trouble with speech or memory.
Encephalitis is uncommon, but it can be deadly. If you think you have symptoms of encephalitis, see a doctor right away.
What are the symptoms of encephalitis?
Symptoms of encephalitis can include:
- A fever.
- A headache (which can be very painful).
- A stiff neck and back.
- Light hurting your eyes.
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Lack of energy.
More serious symptoms include:
- Personality changes.
- Memory loss.
- Hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that aren't there).
If you think that you or your child has encephalitis, call your doctor right away.
Early on, symptoms of encephalitis may be like those of meningitis. This is a serious viral or bacterial illness that causes swelling of the tissues around the brain and spinal cord.
What causes encephalitis?
Infection with a virus is the main cause of encephalitis. Different types of viruses can cause the illness. For example, West Nile virus can cause encephalitis when a person is bitten by an infected mosquito. Another type is the herpes simplex virus, which is the same virus that causes cold sores and genital herpes. A mother who is infected with the herpes virus can also pass the virus to her baby. If this happens and the baby gets encephalitis, it is very serious.
Encephalitis also can be caused by bacteria or by a parasite, such as the one that causes toxoplasmosis. In rare cases, encephalitis can be caused by a fungus.
But most people who get these types of infections don't get encephalitis.
How is encephalitis diagnosed?
Your doctor will ask questions about your past health and your symptoms. He or she will likely order tests to confirm the diagnosis. These may include:
- Spinal fluid analysis.
By doing a lumbar puncture (also called a spinal tap), your doctor can check the spinal fluid for an increase in white blood cells and protein. The bacteria, virus, parasite, or fungus causing the encephalitis also may be found in the spinal fluid.
- Imaging tests.
An MRI or CT scan, which takes pictures of the inside of your body, may show bleeding, swelling, or other changes in the brain.
- Electroencephalogram (EEG).
This test can measure the electrical signals in the brain. It may show a change related to the illness.
- Blood tests.
These tests can show what type of virus is causing encephalitis.
How is encephalitis treated?
If you have encephalitis, you will need to be treated in a hospital. Your treatment will depend on your symptoms and the cause of your illness. You may be treated right away with an antiviral medicine, such as acyclovir. Antiviral medicine may make symptoms less severe, especially if you get the medicine right away. If the doctor thinks that your symptoms are caused by bacteria, rather than by a virus, he or she may treat you with antibiotics.
You will also get care to ease your symptoms and allow your body to heal on its own. This is called supportive care. You may take medicines to reduce pain and fever or to stop seizures. In some cases, you may need a machine called a ventilator to help you breathe.
After you are out of the hospital, it may take several weeks, months, or even longer to fully recover from your symptoms. You can take care of yourself by eating well and getting plenty of rest. Follow your doctor's instructions on how much fluid to drink. If your doctor says it's okay, you can take nonprescription pain relievers for headaches. These include acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like naproxen, ibuprofen, or aspirin. Do not give aspirin to anyone younger than 20 because of the risk of Reye syndrome. Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label.
Some people have long-term problems. If you have muscle weakness or problems with coordination, you may need physical therapy. If you have speech or memory loss, you may need speech therapy or occupational therapy.
When to call
Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:
- You have a seizure.
Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:
- You have a fever.
- You have a severe headache.
- You have a stiff neck.
- You are nauseated or are vomiting.
- You are confused or cannot think clearly.
Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:
- You notice new numbness or weakness.
- You do not get better as expected.